Bow Down to Isabel Wilkerson

March 27, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, front cover (2011), Random House.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, front cover (2011), Random House.

I’ve finally read Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) this month, just as I finished teaching a mini-course in post-1865 African American history. If I ever have the opportunity again to choose my own books for a survey-level course in African American history, this would be one of my cornerstone books. I know I stand at the back of a very long list when I say this, but this is a wonderfully powerful and insightful book, with language and a writing style equally as tender.

This was what I wrote regarding my first impressions on Goodreads.com:

My God – this book is a masterpiece! Wilkerson has done what historians and writers as diverse and groundbreaking as Kenneth Kusmer, David Levering Lewis, Joe William Trotter, Jr., Nicholas Lemann, Thomas Sugrue and James Grossman couldn’t (and in a couple of cases, wouldn’t) do. She put flesh, blood and bones on the Black individuals and families who migrated “up North” and out West throughout the bulk of the twentieth century. She didn’t distract with neo-Marxist, post-modern, post-structural, proletarian, or other overly academic theories for understanding the “hows” and “whys” behind Black migration between 1915 and the 1970s.

Reading Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) was like reading into my own family’s pasts (my mother and father came to New York City — specifically, the Bronx (Pelham Parkway and Wakefield) — during the 1960s from Arkansas and Georgia/Florida before moving to Mount Vernon). She captured so well the aspirations, the inspirations and the trepidations of the people who migrated, and the things they faced upon arrival. Wilkerson, most of all, grounded herself in the scholarly, but weaved it into a story that was nothing less than literary. If you’re a US or African American historian, a Black Studies, Black Women’s Studies or American Studies scholar, you must incorporate in your curriculum if you haven’t already. If you’re a writer who aspires to tell an important story — one that educates as it entertains — then The Warmth of Other Suns is a great place to start and Wilkerson a great writer to emulate.

Wilkerson called the Great Migration one of the great events of the twentieth century. But it was more than that. It was one of the great events in American history, a silent and gradual revolution on par with westward expansion and more significant than the second wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to the US between 1870 and 1914. I and millions of others like me should know. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I wasn’t a child of two Black migrants who left farms in the South for New York City.


The Hillary Question

March 20, 2014

Hillary Rodham Clinton, official (67th) Secretary of State portrait, January 27, 2009. (Gage via Wikipedia, US Dept of State). In public domain.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, official (67th) Secretary of State portrait, January 27, 2009. (Gage via Wikipedia, US Dept of State). In public domain.

As it is Women’s History Month, it would be a real shame to let it go by without comment on the second attempt to crown former First Lady, US Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the next President of the United States. Only, this attempt at coronation has been underway literally since the week after President Barack Obama’s reelection in November ’12.

We have at least sixteen months before the campaigning for the ’16 election cycle heats up to luke-warm seriousness, and yet the Hillary-ites (my name for her branch of the Clintonites) have been out in force proclaiming Clinton to be the most qualified, the most deserving, with the most diverse set of experiences necessary to be the forty-fifth POTUS. And, by the way, she’s a woman, her supporters seem to emphasize at every turn, as if her gender alone makes her deserving of the office.

If it comes down to it in thirty-two months, I will hold my nose while voting for Hillary Clinton over her potential GOP opponent (as it’s as likely as a man-made black hole that the Republicans would put up a progressive the equivalent of a Teddy Roosevelt). But I cannot in good conscience support any effort to have her become the next president. It’s not about gender for me. Despite the Zionism she represented, I admired Golda Meir, not to mention, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi. Really, my issue with Hillary Clinton comes down to what two other people represent — the late Margaret Thatcher, and Mrs. Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton, our forty-second president.

My issues in detail:

1. Hillary Clinton’s election is a victory for American women. This bothers me more than any other argument. It’s similar to the argument for Obama that came out of the ’08 election — that this would be a victory for Blacks and forward-thinking Americans — especially for supporters who had no idea about his agenda. In Obama’s case, his agenda was a difficult one to know or articulate — he’d only been on the national stage for four years, and his excellent memoir Dreams from My Father (1995, 2004) didn’t often match his policy-specific proclamations (that is, on the infrequent occasions in which he made them).

Lilly Ledbetter discusses why Barack Obama (who would sign the equal pay act that is in her name) is the best candidate for working families, Pittsburgh, PA, October 9, 2008. (Blargh29 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

Lilly Ledbetter discusses why Barack Obama (who would sign the equal pay act that is in her name) is the best candidate for working families, Pittsburgh, PA, October 9, 2008. (Blargh29 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

In Hillary Clinton’s case, we have a record of her statements and policy prescriptions, going back to the mid-1990s. Despite the wishes of many Hillary-supporting feminists, Mrs. Clinton’s record on issues as far-ranging as reproductive rights, equal pay, women serving in the military, really, any progressive issues that affected women, has been inconsistent. Since the universal health care debacle she experienced in ’94, Clinton has spoken little in public about these issues. She proposed few bills related to women’s rights while serving one and a third terms (eight years) in the Senate, and wasn’t exactly front and center on issues like repealing DADT or DOMA or the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of ’09 during her time campaigning or during her years as Secretary of State.

Maybe there’s a really good argument to be made for supporting Hillary Clinton, but seeing her as a vanguard of feminism or progressive social justice shouldn’t be one of them. It seems that her supporters may be confusing femininity with feminism.

2. Hillary has lots of political experience for the office of President. Sure, she has experience, but I wouldn’t go so far to argue that Hillary Clinton’s experience is above and beyond anyone else’s. Despite her work on the universal healthcare bill in ’94, we shouldn’t count her time as First Lady. It’s not an elected or appointed office, which was one reason why Mrs. Clinton found herself in an antagonistic relationship with Congress and the American public.

So, that leaves her time in the Senate (which I commented on in 1.) and her time as Secretary of State. In the former position, there’s still the fact that she voted for action in Iraq in ’02. In the latter position, there’s the theme of inaction in terms of Iran, the Arab Spring, and yes, despite the right-wing hyperbole, Benghazi. It seems that John Kerry as Secretary of State has found himself doing a lot more in one year than Mrs. Clinton did in four. I’m not sure that Hillary Clinton’s experience is one that should be used as justification for a four-year-long victory lap conducted on her behalf by her supporters.

Logo of Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential campaign, December 13, 2008. (718 Bot via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws -- low resolution/critical commentary re: Hillary Clinton's possible 2016 Presidential run, a subject of public interest.

Logo of Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential campaign, December 13, 2008. (718 Bot via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws — low resolution/critical commentary re: Hillary Clinton’s possible 2016 Presidential run, a subject of public interest.

3. Hillary Clinton has a unique set of experiences that make her preeminently qualified to be President. No. Not buying this argument. Without a gun to my head, I can think of people whose combination of direct political experiences and diverse set of life experiences would be good potential candidates for President, even in ’16. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Patty Murray, and Tammy Baldwin, and that’s just the Vice President and the US Senate. That Hillary Clinton learned how to be President by osmosis from being married to Bill isn’t comforting at all. If she follows POTUS 42′s strategy of testing-the-wind-with-right-index-finger triangulation, we will all suffer for it. Plus, by this definition, shouldn’t Michelle Obama run for President in ’16 also?

Would Hillary Clinton be a terrible choice? No. But she would be an uninspiring one, one whose organizational and management skills would be in question from day one, precisely because of the political and other experiential baggage she’s carried for more than twenty years. The office of President is already one that’s been bought and paid for in recent decades. The coronation of Hillary Clinton, if successful, will continue this trend, and to the detriment of every ordinary American, male, female and transgender.


My and Diane Ravitch’s Path to Reign of Error

March 11, 2014

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

I first began reading Diane Ravitch in July 1990, the summer before my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the summer in which I became interested in understanding magnet programs and their relationship with desegregation and diversity efforts, courtesy of my own experience with Mount Vernon, New York public schools and its now defunct Humanities Program. I read both The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974) and The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (1985) that summer, with education scholar and Ford Foundation director Jeanne Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985) sandwiched in between.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year period of constantly intellectual disagreement between me and Ravitch. Oakes’ work captured inequality in terms of race and socioeconomics so much better than Ravitch, whose writings back then often treated these inequalities and distinctions as afterthoughts. When I shifted my research area to multicultural education and multiculturalism, though, that was when I found Ravitch’s absolutist defense of so-called traditional American democratic education and all things e pluribus unum unbelievably stifling. With all Ravitch knew about the politics of education, in New York and with the US Department of Education, how could she possibly defend a system that did as much to control and exclude students as it did to provide something akin to an equal opportunity?

I chalked Ravitch up to being another out-of-touch neoconservative, scared to death of race and diversity and multiculturalism. I said as much at conferences like the American Educational Research Association meeting and other conferences. I wrote as much in my dissertation and in my first book, Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience (2004). Through it all, I always found Ravitch’s writing compelling, but her conclusions wanting, because they lacked perspective and empathy in the context of public schools and diversity.

Then, Ravitch wrote Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform in 2000. Though it contained some of her common themes — overemphasis on the mantra of reform, the need for more testing, support for school choice, denigration of a multicultural curriculum — Ravitch showed growth in this book. She was less hostile to a more progressive curriculum and seemed, for the first time, really, to understand how much race and poverty had shaped the direction and the harshness of school reform going back to 1900. I happily used Ravitch’s Left Back in my History of American Education Reform course at George Washington in 2002. For her book provided a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the politics of K-12 education in a way that any educator of any American ideological perspective could understand.

I’ve finally read Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013). Reign of Error is Ravitch at her most passionate and energized. If I hadn’t read a couple dozen of Ravitch’s articles from the 1980s and 1990s and four of her previous books, I would think that this was her first book, as there is sense of urgency in Reign of Error that can seldom be found outside of epic memoirs and epic fiction novels.

Ravitch’s argument in Reign of Error is a simple one. Corporate education reform, if allowed to continue unfettered, will destroy public education in the US, and in the process, American democracy. Privatizing public schools (i.e., turning them into “public” charter schools), destroying teacher’s unions, constant high-stakes testing, bypassing school boards and forgetting about racial segregation and poverty — that’s corporate education reform’s agenda. As Ravitch said in Chapter 12 on the fallacies of merit pay for teachers, “Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies (p. 119).” She could have also substituted the words “school choice,” “creationism,” “standardized testing,” “closing schools,” and “privatization” for “merit pay.”

But Ravitch goes further in her 400-page treatise. That though public education in the US has had its share of problems — the need for more teacher training and time for professional development, racial segregation and high levels of poverty while underfunded — that corporate education reform has compounded these problems several times over. That with corporate education reform, teachers, parents and students will have no say in public education, at least the ones without their own personal foundation with which to endow their own public charter school.

From a writer’s standpoint, this wasn’t Ravitch’s best effort. Her argument is repetitive, one where she likely could’ve cut the main chapters by a quarter (about 100 pages) and made the same points. I likely could’ve become inebriated if I had a shot of vodka every time the words “poverty,” “Gates,” “Walton,” “Broad,” “high-stakes testing,” and “corporate education reform” come up. But given my history with reading Ravitch and with this topic, of course Reign of Error was repetitive — it was like reading my own words on this same topic.

Ultimately, Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a primer for anyone interested in averting the social injustice that is the corporate education reform tyranny of wealthy philanthropists, money-grubbing entrepreneurs and politicians across America’s limited ideological spectrum. For those whom up to now this issue has been of limited interest, or for those who’ve felt the change in public education but haven’t quite been able to articulate those feelings, Reign of Error is for you.

For educators, parents and even students already involved in writing about or protesting against corporate education reform, this book is still for you. Ravitch provides so much ammunition that Reign of Error can be applied in numerous ways to numerous situations. At school board meetings. With #AskMichelleRhee hash tags on Twitter. In job interviews with Teach for America and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In letters to the editor of the mainstream newspapers and in comments to mainstream TV and radio newscasters. In arguments with neoconservative parents who send their kids to private schools.

“Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time (p. 325).” is how Ravitch ended her Reign of Error. It’s not an exaggeration. But it does beg a question. If we can successfully fend off corporate education reform — and assume that the country will continue to ignore the poverty and racial segregation that Ravitch desperately wants addressed — can she and I then spend five minutes discussing multiculturalism?


Fear and (White) Women’s History Month

March 6, 2014

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, November 27, 2013. (The Herald via Wikipedia). In public domain (US).

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, November 27, 2013. (The Herald via Wikipedia). In public domain (US).

I often find it ironic that Women’s History Month follows immediately after Black History Month. In this sequence, both are racialized, as the former tends to represent White women, while the latter represents all Blacks regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or country of origin. Meaning that women of color often have to fight to be recognized during Women’s History Month, that poor women often go unrecognized in both Black and Women’s History months, and that other nuances of demographics and history aren’t thought of at all.

Such is the case with issues of -isms within feminism and Women’s History Month. Particularly when combined with the actualization of fear. In the cases of domestic violence, rape, assault, kidnapping, harassment and other threats against women, it’s certainly understandable that the fear of such things (and the breaking down those threats and fears in dialogue) are a big part of feminism and Women’s History Month more specifically. But when combined with certain -isms — especially racism and elitism — these issues become more about profiling stereotypical threats rather than dealing with real threats against women, especially (but not exclusively) for White women.

Compact Glock 19 in 9x19mm Parabellum, November 4, 2007. (Vladimir Dudak via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC 3.0 & GNU.

Compact Glock 19 in 9x19mm Parabellum, November 4, 2007. (Vladimir Dudak via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC 3.0 & GNU.

It’s something I experience every day. A White woman crossing the street as I approach, on my way home, to my car, to run an errand, or to pick up my son from school. A woman — White or Black — gasping audibly at the sight of me in an elevator, some even not getting on board, as if I had a ski mask over my face and a Glock in my right hand. White female co-workers who, upon seeing me outside the office, would put on a blank face and walk by me while I’m holding open a door, too scared to even say “Hello,” much less a “Thank you.”

It’s the nearly daily reminder that where feminism and Whiteness intertwine, I represent the Black male misogynist. I am dangerous, the guy whom White women and middle class women of color imbue anti-feminist threats and violence. Even when standing still on an elevator, deep in my own thoughts about work, teaching, family and writing.

Martyrdom of Joseph Marchand (1860) by unknown, September 27, 2008. (World Imaging via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC 3.0 and GNU.

Martyrdom of Joseph Marchand (1860) by unknown (or death by 1,000 cuts), September 27, 2008. (World Imaging via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC 3.0 and GNU.

I get it. White women often have to expend micro-energies on microaggressions from men — including Black men — in order to get through the day. For some, it’s probably an exhausting part of their existence. Likely so much so that they forget to turn off their shields even when bumping into a male co-worker or friend.

From my perspective, though, it’s not that simple. It’s not like I look at every White male and female and see another willfully ignorant and entitled racist ready to accuse me of ruining the country or threaten me with bodily harm. I think that in some feminist circles, racial and classist profiling goes on even more so than with most police officers. Fear is an important part of our existence, but it shouldn’t be the centerpiece of how anyone lives their lives, even when it’s justifiable.

In thinking about feminism, Whiteness and Women’s History Month, my two little cents’ worth of thoughts come down to this. I’m tired of being a victim of your fears, which when multiplied over the past 150 years, have often led to misunderstandings, false accusations, arrests, convictions, beatings and deaths. I’m tired of abstract discussions of microaggressions, threats and violence against mostly White women that don’t include the perspectives of women of color. And I’m tired of feminists who refuse to evaluate their own elitism and Whiteness in how they go about their everyday lives.


What I Didn’t Know Growing Up – It Still Hurts

February 27, 2014

George Bernard Shaw and ignorance, June 2013. (http://www.irelandcalling.ie/).

George Bernard Shaw and ignorance, June 2013. (http://www.irelandcalling.ie/).

“My people perish for a lack of knowledge,” it seems, is something that anyone can find in almost any religion’s texts anywhere. Heck, depending on perspective, even atheists in general can agree with this statement (of course, the issue would be what constitutes “knowledge”). I read this verse (it’s in Hosea and Isaiah, and versions of it as well as in Jewish texts and the Qur’an) for the first time when I was fifteen in ’85, less than a year after I converted to Christianity. Boy, I had no idea how little I knew about myself, my family and my history when I first read that verse twenty-nine years ago.

In light of the end of Black History Month, I wouldn’t be me without noting how little any of us know about our families, our lineages and our ancestors. But it’s not just true of the millions of us descended from West and Central Africans kidnapped, bound, abused, raped and nearly worked to death to provide Europeans (and Arabs) wealth and comfort. Most of us don’t even know what we think we know about much more recent history and events than surviving the Middle Passage or overcoming Jim Crow.

A rabbi, a priest and an imam, 2013-2014. (PizzaSpaghetti via http://www.deviantART.com).

A rabbi, a priest and an imam, 2013-2014. (PizzaSpaghetti via http://www.deviantART.com).

For me and my family, I knew so little about us that my Mom could’ve told me that Satan had thrown us out of Hell for being too brown to burn and I would’ve accepted it as an appropriate answer. All I really knew of my mother’s side of my family was that they were from Arkansas, that my Uncle Sam (I chuckled sometimes thinking of the irony) was my Mom’s closest sibling, and that they grew up as dirt poor as anyone could get without living in a thatched root hut on less than $1 a day.

I asked for more during those rare moments when my focus wasn’t on high school, getting into college and getting as far away from 616 and Mount Vernon, New York as possible. I ended up finding out about how my Mom’s mother once beat her with the back of a wooden brush for not being ready on time for church, that there were years where her father made only $200 total from cotton farming, and that she was the oldest of twelve kids. She had done some form of work either taking care of her siblings, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes by hand, and hoeing and picking cotton, since she was five or six. Oh yeah, and she played basketball in high school.

On my father’s side, I knew a bit more, if only because Darren and me went with my father to visit the Collins farm in Harrison, Georgia in August ’75. I was five and a half then, but I do remember the fresh smoked ham and bacon, the smell of my grandfather’s Maxwell House coffee, me being too scared to ride a horse, so they put me on a sow (my brother did ride the horse, though). But what people did, how a Black family owned their own land going back to the turn of the twentieth century, I wouldn’t have known to even ask about at not quite six years old.

What I didn’t know until after high school, college, even after earning a Ph.D. in knowing (that’s what a history degree ultimately is) was so much worse than I imagined. To find out at twenty-three that my Mom was a star basketball player in high school. She played center, and led her team to Arkansas’ segregated state quarterfinals in ’65. My Uncle Sam played four sports in high school (basketball, football, baseball and track and field) and was offered college scholarships, but didn’t have the grades to move forward. I learned a year later that my Uncle Paul followed in their footsteps, and played three years at the University of Houston, left early and played for the Houston Rockets in ’82-’83 (not a good year for them, or for me, for that matter) before blowing out a knee and moving into entertainment work.

My father’s family — at least the women of the family — boasted at least three college degrees. Two of my aunts became school teachers. My uncles started businesses in Atlanta and in parts of rural Georgia, working their way well beyond the farm to the work they wanted to do.

Unidentified tenant farmer, his home, automobile, and family, Lee Wilson & Company, rural Arkansas, 1940s. (http://libinfo.uark.edu/SpecialCollections/)

Unidentified tenant farmer, his home, automobile, and family, Lee Wilson & Company, rural Arkansas, 1940s. (http://libinfo.uark.edu/SpecialCollections/)

I learned all of this by the time I turned thirty-two, just a year and a half before my own son was born. How many different decisions I would’ve made about my life if I had known that one half of my family was full of athletes, and the other half was full of business owners, not to mention three aunts with a college education? I would’ve known to try out for any sport in high school — particularly basketball — and to not be afraid to fail. I would’ve known that I was only the first person in my immediate family to take a go at college beyond a certificate in dietary science (my Mom earned that in the summer of ’75), and not the first one on either side as I once thought.

Most of all, I would’ve known that though I was lonely and played the role of a loner my last years growing up, that I wasn’t alone. There were a whole bunch of people in my lineage, some of whom were alive and well, from whom I could’ve drawn strength, found kinship, felt pride and confidence in, where I wouldn’t have seen myself as an abandoned and abused underdog anymore.

If I’d known all this growing up, I wouldn’t have felt and sometimes feel robbed now, by poverty and parenting, abuse and alcoholism. This is why having knowledge to draw from is so important.


Academia’s Silence Must Be Heard

February 24, 2014

At Eternity's Gate, by Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas painting, Kröller-Müller Museum (The Netherlands), May 1890. (Eloquence via Wikipedia). In public domain.

At Eternity’s Gate, by Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas painting, Kröller-Müller Museum (The Netherlands), May 1890. (Eloquence via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I’ve learned the hard way how the world of academia treats folks who break its unwritten covenants. The ones that say  accept all of our strictures about what to publish, how to write, when to write it, about tenured/tenure-streamed vs. non-tenured, adjuncts and graduate student TAs and unionization, among so many others. Those of us who make trouble, who question the archaic wisdom of those in our world, are often cast out, rendered invisible or otherwise completely forgotten about.

The funny thing about going against the grain of academia — or at least, my fields of US/African American history and American education/ed policy — has been that criticism can serve as a better sign of acceptance than hearing nothing at all. It was like this for me in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, and even my first five years after finishing my doctorate. Whenever someone said that my work on multiculturalism and Black history was “interesting,” the flatness with which a professor or grad student said “interesting” was the key for me. If the “interesting” was completely flat, it meant “but I completely disagree with your line of research” or “this thing is too simplistic and boring for me as a scholar to get excited about.” If the “interesting” had a lilt to it or even a slightly raised eyebrow, it meant that one of my colleagues or more senior folk really found my work intriguing.

Actor Arte Johnson as the Nazi German character Wolfgang on NBC's Laugh-In (1968-73), saying "Very interresting..." per usual,  September 4, 2011. (http://photobucket.com)

Actor Arte Johnson as the Nazi German character Wolfgang on NBC’s Laugh-In (1968-73), saying “Very interesting…” per usual, September 4, 2011. (http://photobucket.com)

That term “interesting” was my indication that some people acknowledged and understood the importance of my work, and that some absolutely couldn’t and wouldn’t. But over the past decade, as I’ve complained about the nature of academic writing, about the limits of scholarship and about the changing nature of academia itself (from a hiring perspective), the one thing I’ve noticed the most has been academia’s silence. The collective silence has been deafening, so much so that I finally concluded it meant not only disagreement, but a shunning as well. Like the Amish, only without the Rumspringa.

I had fleeting moments when I noticed the silence, like at my second OAH presentation in Los Angeles in ’01 on Black women intellectuals and multiculturalism. Even though my research was sound, I knew I needed to work on drawing clearer connections between how I’d been defining intellectual and connecting it with notions of cultural pluralism, and thus, multiculturalism. With forty people in the audience, and with thirty-five minutes of Q and A, no one asked me a single question. No one in the audience, it seemed, was interested in multiculturalism or historical contributions to the idea from Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Church Terrell or anyone else.

I noticed even more as I submitted my first book Fear of a “Black” America for publication with the university presses prior to ’04. At least with the likes of Praeger and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, I’d frequently get a detailed response, good and bad. But with the university presses, it was deadly silence. I guess me working full-time in the nonprofit world and only teaching ed foundation courses part-time was one of my deficits.

The final set of hints of silence that came my way was in the year after I published Fear of a “Black” America. I decided in ’05 to write an article on the overuse of the term scholar-activist, an article I published in Academe Magazine that fall. Grad students tended to like it, activists outside of academia have cited it hundreds of times, and my immediate circle of friends in academia loved it. But my relevant fields within academia remained silent about it. They were silent about my argument that exercising academic freedom doesn’t automatically make one an activist, and that academic writing, even writings that lean hard to the left, don’t make an academician an activist either.

Dante in Exile (n.d.), painting by anonymous, Archivo Iconografico S.A., Itália, June 3, 2006. (Fernando S. Aldado via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Dante in Exile (n.d.), painting by anonymous author, Archivo Iconografico S.A., Itália, June 3, 2006. (Fernando S. Aldado via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I realize then I had evolved as a writer to the point where I wasn’t just uncomfortable with academic writing, the tenure process and the lack of unionization for adjuncts and grad students — I’d been uncomfortable for years. No, I wanted a teaching, even administrative relationship with higher education for sure, but not one where all of my eggs were in the academic writing basket. Unlike Joshua Rothman’s grand assumption in his “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?” piece in last week’s New Yorker, that “[p]rofessors live inside that system [of academic writing] and have made peace with it,” I have not and will not make peace with this. Ever.

I think Nicholas Kristof is a hack, and that most of the columnists of The New York Times are hacks as well. But in knowing the sadistic silence of academia as well as I do, I also know that this world of higher education can and does grind many of its participants up, often without making the slightest sound. It’s a wonder that I’m still teaching and writing anything at all.


Over 3 Billion Blacks Killed

February 19, 2014

McDonald's signage, Austin, MN, May 20, 2006. (Jonathunder via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC and GFDL.

McDonald’s signage, Austin, MN, May 20, 2006. (Jonathunder via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC and GFDL.

Do you remember those McDonald’s signs back in the ’70 and ’80s, before the corporation went global (from 6,000 to 30,000 franchises since ’92), where they said, “Over 100 Million Served” hamburgers or “1o Billion Served?” If the signage is there at all these days, it usually says “Billions and Billions Served.” That’s about as cheap as Black life is in the US as well, though maybe a bit more expensive in Western countries in general (they do use the Euro, after all!).

I’ve been thinking about the low value of Black lives for years, even in the middle of grad school at Pitt. But I must admit, it’s been on my mind more and more since George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin nearly two years ago. Now, with the hung jury over the murder of Jordan Davis, with so many who find it easy to render Black and Brown lives cheaper than dog meat in the middle of the Roman Coliseum 2,000 years ago, it seems that there’s no such thing as a dead stereotype.

Jordan Davis' Facebook picture, February 17, 2014. (via Huffington Post).

Jordan Davis’ Facebook picture, February 17, 2014. (via Huffington Post).

It’s so infused in popular culture, as life and art intertwine in a macabre dance on Black and Brown bodies. Blacks especially (and for the most part, Latinos) don’t feel pain the same way as Whites. We lack the emotional and psychological control of Whites. We’re irrational and prone to criminal behavior. We’re lazy and don’t mind living in abject poverty. We love illegal drugs, but love malt liquor and hard alcohol even more. We’ll eat anything deep-fried, and don’t mind dying before middle age just so that we can save the Social Security dollars for elderly White folk.

With that as the backdrop, it’s no wonder much of the movies, music, TV and Internet depictions of us ultimately ends in our gratuitous, ubiquitous and anonymous deaths. Yes, even in 2014! I’ve recently binge-watched the now defunct CW series Nikita (2010-14) with Maggie Q as the lead. I counted at least thirty Black actors on the series over its seventy-four episodes. Only two survived the series, and one (character played by Lyndie Greenwood) wasn’t even in the last two episodes because the actress was doing double-duty on FOX’s Sleepy Hollow!

But if anyone were to take some of the largest grossing films and franchises of all time, it would become obvious how cheap folks in the US and elsewhere think Black and Brown lives really are. Between Independence Day (1996) and The Terminator series of films (1984-2009) alone, you would have to assume that almost all of the forty million Blacks living in the US died in these fictional realities, not to mention the 1.2 billion folks of at least partial African descent living in other Western nations, Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the rest of Latin America. That this has occurred more than once in these films alone puts us at 2.48 billion Blacks killed.

Then, between lesser known/lesser quality films like The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Deep Impact (1998), The War of the Worlds (2005) and Hunger Games (2012-present), it would seem that in every global calamity, most Blacks draw the short straw. These movies (and, prior to these movies, books) put us easily over three billion Blacks and Browns killed. And that’s without accounting for standard action films, cops-and-criminals shows, and other cinematographic renderings of the Black and Brown as disposable human beings. Unless you’re Don Cheadle, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman (sometimes) or Halle Berry, if you’re Black or Brown, your job in popular culture is to die a violent death.

Of course, those upset with my sardonic take will say, “Well what about gansta rap? What about Ice-T, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and so many other rappers who present Black lives as cheaper than bottled water?” Three things: 1. you really need to update yourself on today’s rap, between Lil Jon, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne, before commenting; 2. the “gansta rappers” of the ’90s were mostly rapping about a lived experience, not some fantasy life; and 3. they figured out that they could and can make money off of Black deaths in lyrical rhymes, just like folks in the movie, TV and real worlds.

Venison meat for braising, February 19, 2014. (http://www.simplyscratch.com).

Venison meat for braising, February 19, 2014. (http://www.simplyscratch.com).

This will make the likes of George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn, and substantial numbers in the NYPD and LAPD happy. Actually, what would really make them happy would be a version of the movie The Purge (2013). But instead of crime and murder being legal for one day a year, they would have to get a “coon hunting” license to kill themselves a Black or Brown person one day a year. That way, they could keep our numbers low, just like hunters do with deer every fall.


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